So last week I started a series on the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, to focus on the common ground that Christians have rather than on the differences between denominations and traditions. I’m going to use John Stott’s book Basic Christianity as a reference, but for today I have to go into another text as well. Basic Christianity begins with an examination of the person of Jesus Christ, but the context is apologetic – that is, to prove that Jesus’ claims about himself were true. It’s a very good internal argument for the deity of Christ, but the purpose of this series is not apologetics, but a reaffirmation of agreed upon doctrine.
I think that an overview of theology needs to start with God. That makes sense, right? So I’m going to write about God’s character, or to use the theological term, attributes. Attributes are not descriptions of God’s actions or emotions; they are essential aspects of His nature, as much as being human is to our nature. This also means that everything God says, thinks, does, or feels comes out of these attributes and is consistent with these attributes. I’m going to base these next few posts on the textbook Introducing Christian Doctrine by Millard J. Erickson for this post, mostly because it was my theology book in high school so I happen to have it on hand, and also because I think the way it breaks down the attributes of God is very clear and systematic.
I should note that depending on what church you go to, the “list” of God’s attributes may not look exactly like this one, but basically this is what we all as Christians believe about God. I’m not going to go verse-crazy with this, but I’ll provide a few references if you want to look them up.
Erickson divides God’s attributes into two basic categories: greatness and goodness. Greatness refers to God’s divine power, while goodness refers to his personal or moral nature. Today I’m going to focus on the former because I don’t want this to be super incredibly long. So without further ado –
The Greatness of God
1. Spirituality – that is, God is Spirit (John 4:24). He is not confined to a body as we are, and is therefore not subject to the limitations and restrictions associated with being a corporeal being. The Bible often uses the word “invisible” to refer to the spirituality of God (John 1:18, 1 Timothy 1:17). References to physical features of God – hands, feet, eyes, etc. – are not literal descriptions of what God looks like, but are anthropomorphisms.
2. Life – God is alive, full of life, the source of life. God’s personal name YHWH (Exodus 3:14) is most likely derived from the infinitive verb “to be.” One of the implications of this doctrine is that God was not created or caused by anything or anyone. He has always been, and he will always be. This is one of those concepts that will mess with your mind if you think about it very much. Another implication of this is that God doesn’t need us. God doesn’t lack anything or miss anything without us; he was perfectly complete on his own. And that suggests that whatever motives God had for creating us were selfless rather than selfish – it wasn’t for his own sake but for our sake that he made us. Lewis says that if God does need us, it’s because we need to be needed (Mere Christianity somewhere).
3. Personality – meaning, God is a person. Sometimes we forget this, especially when we start getting really deep in theological discussions. We start treating God like a concept, an idea, or a state of mind, rather than a personal being with thoughts and feelings. This means that our relationship with him is, in many ways, a lot like the relationships we have with other people. God’s not a machine that we can program or control or coerce. We can also know him personally, and know about him. I’ll come back to this in a bit.
4. Infinity – God has no limits and cannot be limited. This refers to his omnipresence (without spatial or temporal limits, able to be present anywhere and everywhere, in any and every dimension, at any and every time – not only that, but he does not exist within time or space but outside them – another mind-boggling concept – because they are part of his creation), omniscience (He knows everything, not just in an encyclopedic way, but in an intimate, experiential way), and omnipotence (God’s power is without limit; he is capable of doing anything he wants to do).
5. Immutability – Erickson refers to this as “constancy.” God cannot, does not, will not change (Malachi 3:6). Probably my favorite part of the book of James is where he writes that God “does not change like shifting shadows” (1:17). This means what was true of God before creation is true now; what was true of God in the person of Jesus Christ was true of him in the Old Testament; what was true of him today was true of him in the garden of Eden. This doesn’t mean that God is like a statue, stagnant and unmoving, but that his nature doesn’t change. We don’t have to worry that God will someday be limited, or no longer living, or no longer good. His character will always be the same.
A final note on God’s greatness is the tension between transcendence and immanence. Transcendence means that God is beyond us, above us, unknown and unknowable to us (Jeremiah 55:8-9, Isaiah 6:1-5). Think about this: the only reason we know anything about God’s existence is because God has revealed himself to us. God has revealed himself to us in nature, in Scripture, in the Holy Spirit, and most of all by coming to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. So while he is transcendent, God is also immanent. He is with us (Isaiah 7:14); he works in and among us. My husband Justin wrote a great blog post a few days ago on God’s nature, and I loved what he had to say on this subject:
“This vastness is so incomprehensible to man that even with the Bible we’ve only begun to understand a pinprick of the vastness of God. There’s always gonna be more to explore. [. . .] Despite all this vastness, we are not Deists, we believe God is Here, and Now, interacting with us, guiding us, ultimately loving us and wanting a relationship. He is beautiful because He makes Himself knowable, and explorable, even now . . . while God is knowable, he is not fully known and never will be.”
Tomorrow I’ll look at the second half of God’s attributes – his personal or moral characteristics, if you will.